How the Bible Came to Us: Hebrew Transmission

Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with roughly ten chapters written in Aramaic. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew and was introduced to the Bible when the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon. After telling Moses the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch), God instructed the nation of Israel:

"Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." (Deut 4:1-2)

Repeated used of Moses' writings caused his scroll to degraded with use, and the nation of Israel developed a sacred tradition of copying the word of God. A group of Jewish scribes (Hebrew: Sopherim) developed with a high regard for the Scriptures. Nothing is known about how this group developed, and what is known today is based on a later group of scribes - scholars called the Masoretes (500-900 A.D.). For their accurate scribal traditions and manuscript prominence in widespread acceptance and usage, their text is largely forms the basis of the English translation of the Old Testament.

Many of the Jewish regulations were designed to catch copying errors at the level of the scribe; safeguards were put into place to catch errors that may have been missed by the scribe and erroneously authenticated. According to Jewish tradition:

"Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (with the Tablets). If anyone would come and attempt to rewrite or falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark would "testify" against him. (likewise, if he had access to the scroll in the Ark and tried to falsify it, the distributed copies would "testify" against him.)" Midrash (Devarim Rabba 9:4).

To give you an idea of their scribal traditions of copying the Old Testament, we’ll go through an English modified example. First of all, the early manuscripts were written on animal skins (parchment), calf skin (vellum) and later plant reeds (papyrus). Each sheet was of a set dimension and then sewn together to form a long continues sheet which was rolled up into a large scroll.

1. Hebrew is written from right to left, without any vowels, and without any punctuation. Here is an example of a two column manuscript of a biblical passage:

nht tnnvc yM pk dn cv yM t ntsl ddn llw y f nht
ht ll fr slpp ht ll gnm nssssp drsrt yM b llhs y
ylh dn stsrp f mdgnk M t b llhs y dn nM s
htr lrI f sns ht t kps llhs y tht sdrw ht r shT ntn
ht mrf mh t dllc hwhY dn d Got p tnw ssM wN
ht llt dn bcJ f sh ht t ys llhs y shT gnys ntnm
dn sntpyg ht t dd I thw ns vh svlsry Y lrsI f sns
flsyM t y thgrb dn sgnw slg n p y dtfl I wh wn S

2. Try your hand at translating by inserting vowels and punctuation. What is the English translation of the above passage? Gain a sense in what it took for translators to provide the Bible today.


The Masorah can be seen in the oldest and best Masoretic texts. On every page, the Hebrew Bible is arranged in two or more columns and distributed between the upper and lower margins are a varying number of lines of smaller writing.

Masorah Magna or Great Masorah is often the small writings in the side margins.

Masorah Parva or Small Masorah is the small writings between the columns.

The illustration given to the right is a reduced facsimile of a three column Masoretic Manuscript (16.25" x 12.375"), written in a German hand, about the year A.D. 1120.

The Masorah Magna is the small writing in the upper (four lines) and lower margins (seven lines) of the manuscript.

The Masorah Para is the small writing in the outer margins and between the three columns.

This information contains the necessary details to insure correct transcription of the manuscript and maintain its fidelity.

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